WASHINGTON — The crisis over Crimea is more than a dispute over whether the strategic Black Sea peninsula should be considered Russian or Ukrainian. At its root is a deeper issue: Russia's simmering anger over its treatment by the West since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Russia's biggest grievance has been the absorption into the NATO alliance not only of former Soviet allies, such as Poland and Romania, but also three republics that were part of the Soviet Union: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The last straw was a European Union move to draw Ukraine closer to the West through a political association agreement. That set off a chain of events that led to the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian president and, ultimately, to Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recounted the post-Cold War history during a speech Tuesday marking Crimea's annexation, accusing the West of cheating Russia and ignoring its interests in the years that followed the Soviet collapse.
"They have constantly tried to drive us into a corner for our independent stance, for defending it, for calling things by their proper names and not being hypocritical," Putin said. "But there are limits. And in the case of Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed a line. They have behaved rudely, irresponsibly and unprofessionally."
Few Western observers and students of East-West relations condone Putin's actions in Ukraine — the military takeover, the hastily organized referendum about Crimean independence or Moscow's equally rushed annexation of the strategic Black Sea peninsula on Tuesday. But there is an understanding that the Ukraine crisis marks a Kremlin decision that more than "20 years of trying to develop a better relationship with the West has been a failure," said Keith Darden, a professor of international service at American University.
Moscow's rapid takeover of Crimea, said Jack F. Matlock Jr., U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the end of the Cold War, must be understood in the context of how Washington has handled relations with Moscow since the Soviet Union fell apart.
"The common assumption that the West forced the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus won the Cold War is wrong. The fact is that the Cold War ended by negotiation to the advantage of both sides," Matlock wrote on The Washington Post opinion page. Since the Soviet collapse, he said, the problem is that the U.S. has "insisted on treating Russia as the loser."
NATO's move into the Baltic countries and the Balkans was "the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin," he wrote.
Russia's strategic and emotional ties to Crimea are especially deep. The Kremlin views Ukraine as essential to its attempts to create a Eurasian Union, an alliance of former Soviet nations modeled after the European Union. Crimea's population is majority Russian and the Kremlin has a long lease on a base there for its ultra-important Black Sea Fleet. Thousands of Russian military personnel were already stationed on the peninsula. Russia also has deployed a big force opposite Ukraine's eastern border, the industrial heartland where a big Russian population would welcome a restoration of Kremlin power.
Western and central Ukraine, on the contrary, are eager to slip the ancient Russian leash and to join with the EU and NATO.
Few could have foreseen that then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych' s rejection of the EU's association agreement last year would lead to massive, monthslong demonstrations and ultimately Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. In his place, a Western-oriented government — many of its members from the protest leadership — took control of the France-sized country.
Wayne Merry of the American Foreign Policy Council said Putin saw that as "a gigantic embarrassment."
"Putin decided, 'I'm not going to let the West get away with this,'" Merry said. "'If they think they can treat me this way, they don't know who they're dealing with. I have something that is already physically in my possession called Crimea. All I have to do is pick it up,'" Merry said.
Sanctions are not much of a deterrent. Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution sees Putin recalling how the Soviet Union withstood the German siege of Leningrad in World War II.
"We can suffer sanctions and deal with any political and economic pain you can inflict," she wrote. "We have a higher threshold for pain than you do."
Darden, of American University, says the annexation of Crimea marks Russia's "turn away from Europe, a turn away from the U.S. toward a much more statist policy, and Crimea is just the beginning of what we're going to see."